Go Walk: Mullaghmeen in Co Westmeath shows size doesn’t matter
It’s a pity line of conifers spoils view from top of Smooth Hill
Go Walk Mullaghmeen, Co Westmeath
Map: Ordnance Survey. Discovery Series Sheet 41
Start and finish: The car park at the entrance to the beech plantation at grid reference 480 780.
Get there: Take the third-class road at the northeast corner of the Square in Castlepollard, which is signposted for Mullaghmeen. Take a sharp right after 2.5km and then a sharp left. Head north for 4km. Go straight through the crossroads and the entrance will be signposted on your left about 1.5km further on.
Time: 3 hours. Distance: 9km if you do two loops. Direct route to summit 4km.
Ascent: 161m. Suitability: Easy.
An Mullach Min (The Smooth Hill) is, at 258m, the highest point in Co Westmeath. This makes it the lowest county top in Ireland. To compensate for this stumpy status, its slopes are home to the largest beech plantation in Europe.
Because of its rich limestone soils, the Department of Forestry decided in 1934 that the hill would be an ideal location to experiment with a deciduous plantation. Do not expect to find the kind of beech that you will come across in woodland. In a commercial plantation, the trees are planted close together so that the trunks grow straight upwards towards the light and do not develop elaborate branch systems.
I found it a delight to walk through. These are graceful trees whose branches also reach upwards, turning the paths into stately avenues. The surrounding ground is like regular woodland with moss-covered rocks and a host of plants in spring, especially bluebells. It is also home to squirrels, foxes, pheasants and badgers as well as a sonorous selection of songbirds.
Having intended just to bag the peak, I found the woodland so attractive that I took the well-marked double loop (The White Trail), before heading for the summit. Where the path ran close to the edge, I got views over the surrounding lowlands as well as the nearby Hill of Moat. Towards the end of the second loop, the path intersects with the Red Route – turn on to this and you will come to the path to the summit indicated with a signpost on which the word carn (sic) is inscribed. I was looking forward to the views over Lough Sheelin and to identifying the dim outlines of distant hills only to discover that the northern side has been planted with conifers, with a couple of fresh saplings growing right in front of the cairn. You can still see out over the landscape but a line of conifer tops rather spoils the view.
I take an extremely dim view of this type of thing. A 258m hill in the midlands is a way more important viewpoint than a hill three times its size in the mountainous periphery and to obscure the views from the summit is, in my view, an environmental crime. I once followed a Buddhist monk up a mountain trail. He was going well but a hundred metres before the summit he turned around and started back. When I asked him why he did this, he replied: “I leave the top to the gods.” I think foresters should follow the same philosophy here and tonsure the hills they are planting, leaving the tops to the people.
Heading down, I had time to investigate the signposted historical features, such as the sad stone walls of famine fields and a Booley hut. These were used by cattle herders in the summer while crops were grown in the lower pastures. I had a great day which only goes to prove that size doesn’t matter.